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One Year On: Revisiting Ukraine On The Anniversary Of The Russian Invasion



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The US media’s coverage of the Russo-Ukrainian war has been disappointing. 

For the most part, it's consisted of junior reporters burnishing their credentials without putting in the work to have even the most rudimentary background knowledge of their subject matter, while spending the majority of time sitting in the relative safety of Kyiv and regurgitating press releases from the Ukrainian MOD. 

So on the one-year anniversary of the Russian invasion, we figured that if they’re not doing their jobs, we might as well do it for them. 

Why? Because this war will define TTPs for near-peer conflict for the next decade. Because the emergence of readily available COTS weapon delivery systems in the form of consumer drones will have an enormous effect on US armor, artillery, and air defense systems for the foreseeable future. 

And because we’re dumping huge amounts of taxpayer dollars into the conflict, so oversight from the fourth estate is not only expected, but should be demanded.

BEING THERE

We visited Ukraine last year (see RECOIL issue 63) through the good efforts of a grass-roots charity and got the opportunity to repeat the process on this trip. 

People Helping People have delivered tons of humanitarian aid to folks affected by the conflict without any government assistance on either end and by using their network of family and friends, they ensure that all donations end up directly in the hands of those who can use them. 

My teammate on this trip was an ex-SEAL, and on February 26th, we loaded up with 15, 50lb bags of gear and hopped on a flight to Poland. 

By the end of the trip, we’d covered over 5000km on the ground (or about 3000 miles in Freedom Units), got to within spitting distance of the Russian border, slept on the floor of abandoned houses near Bakhmut while being serenaded by missile warning sirens, broke bread with guys who would be killed and injured hours later, and gained a better understanding of the conflict than any douchebag from CNN. 

The threat of indirect fire is always present in the eastern part of the country

AN OVERLOOKED STORY

In addition to Ukraine’s regular armed forces, there exists a sizable network of unofficial volunteer units. As an American, this may be difficult to comprehend, but these guys aren’t paid or supported by the government, instead relying on crowdfunding from their hometowns. 

Nor are they part of the official chain of command, but they’re still given missions by the Ministry of Defense, so perhaps the closest US analogy might be that of modern-day Minutemen. 

Most were formed during the melee of the Maidan protests in 2014 and Russia’s subsequent invasion of the Donbas later that year, when the official Ukrainian armed forces struggled to field a scant 6000 troops, despite having strength on paper in the hundreds of thousands.

Wanna trade patches? The previous owner no longer needs this one

Faced with institutional incompetence, and a political class in which many MPs and government officials had been corrupted or compromised by Moscow, ordinary people took matters into their own hands and stood up their own fighting units.

Many of the units created in this period were subsequently rolled into the official organizational structure of the armed forces, e.g., the Azov Regiment and Sich Battalion, while others remained out in the wild, doing their own thing. 

Naturally, they became targets of Russian propaganda and, because they resisted pressure from Kyiv to become part of the establishment, they didn’t win many friends in the Ukrainian government, either. Accusations of Nazi ideology were quickly leveled, which of course, were eagerly picked up by western media hungry for a juicy story. 

So naturally, we had to go find out for ourselves just how much ‘denazification’ Putin’s forces had ahead of them. 

As in the majority of these cases in the west, the supply of actual National Socialists is greatly outstripped by demand, and in speaking with a cross section of members of both Azov and Right Sector, we’ve yet to find an actual Neo-nazi. That said, if we take the current media position of anyone not sporting danger hair and waving a transgender flag as being literally Hitler, then sure, the country is overrun with them.

Did we meet hardcore nationalists, who believe the only good Russian is a dead Russian? Yes, absolutely, but how much this attitude was a reaction to having their country invaded, versus existing before February 24, 2022, was hard to gauge. Still, the absence of evidence is not evidence of absence, and we remain open-minded.

After rolling through the devastated cities and villages of eastern Ukraine, we arrived in a town where troops were gearing up and preparing to rotate into the field. 

An eclectic mix of small arms makes for additional resupply headaches. Note civilian thermal sight.

In one suburban street, a company was spread out in abandoned houses, with roughly 20 guys crammed into each small home, the atmosphere thick with the smell of damp clothing and unwashed bodies. Outside, stray dogs and cats, their owners having either died or fled, roamed the street, scrounging for whatever scraps they could guilt-trip from the soldiers. 

Gear and troops crammed into an abandoned house near Bahkmut, the previous occupants' wedding photo still on the wall

Here, guys from Right Sector got ready as they prepared to conduct a relief in place in Bakhmut. We learned from their commander that contrary to continuing portrayals in the western media of comical levels of ineptitude, Russian forces had been successfully adapting their tactics at the unit level and managed to make incremental territorial gains, albeit at great cost.  

5.45, 5.56, RPGs and other go-boom goodies from a variety of countries

According to ‘Nord,’ the near omnipotence of ATGM systems such as Javelin and Stugna-P meant that the classic Soviet assault doctrine of massed armor headed by main battle tanks was no longer feasible. Instead, criminals recruited from Russia’s prison system or those unfortunate enough to have been recently mobilized were sent forward to locate Ukrainian defensive positions. 

Once they’d been mowed down by machine gun fire and the Ukrainian positions identified, the next phase of the operation could commence. 

MBTs were now employed in the direct fire role against dug-in infantry, while indirect fire assets were used to prevent the defenders from shooting back. 

Starting with BM-21 Grad rocket systems, the objective would be hammered while small infantry assault squads would maneuver into position. As they got closer, progressively smaller and more accurate systems would be employed, starting with 152mm howitzers, and ending up with 82mm mortars, so that the infantry could get within 200m or so without taking too many casualties from their own fire support. 

Once they’d got to danger close, organic platoon support weapons such as AGS-17 automatic grenade launchers would be employed, and the squad would then rush the position. 

Tankers have developed their own anti-anti-tank strategy also. Working in pairs, one T-series would move into a hull-down position and scan for threats, while a second tank would haul ass across an open field, shooting into likely cover. 

It's almost time to plant this year's garden. Probably not going to happen.

The goal was to get ATGM teams to reveal their position by engaging the obvious target, while the concealed tank located where the shot had been fired from. The ATGM would then be hit with HE from the main gun, the tankers relying on destroying the launcher before the relatively slow missile hit their buddy. Fire and forget systems such as Javelin are less vulnerable to this tactic, but for operators of older systems such as Kornet, Milan and TOW, the experience can be fatal.

We few, we happy few, we band of brothers. Though time and location might change, some things don't.

THE NEXT DAY

Supplies were offloaded from a 5-ton truck and distributed to smaller vehicles in preparation for the move-out. Word was passed that everyone was to turn off their cellphones so as not to attract attention and, by extension, 122mm rockets. Gear was passed from hand to hand into the various clapped-out, four-banger diesel SUVs and trucks that are the default mode of transport in this war. 

Whereas in kinder, gentler times, tires and brake pads might be considered wear items, in this case, the entire vehicle is a wear item, with an expected lifespan of a couple of months before it’s either blown up or destroys its drivetrain due to mud and road conditions. 

As we were leaving, one of the troops asked if we could deliver something to his family back home. An artist, he’d been schlepping a palette and oil paints all over the battlefield for the past year and had managed to complete a couple of paintings in the past week or so during downtime. 

Olha, our local fixer, agreed to take them on the condition that we couldn’t be held responsible for any damages and, thinking nothing more of it, put them in the back of the van and set off for the next destination. 

There, we linked up with another set of volunteer troops, this time guys from a territorial defense force battalion who were dug in across the Dnipro river from Zaphorizia Nuclear Power Station. 

After rendezvousing in the courtyard of a Soviet-era apartment block, we squashed into the inevitable clapped-out diesel SUV and raced out to their positions overlooking the river. 

Speed was of the essence, as impact craters straddled the single-track road all the way up to their fighting positions – evidently, this was a pre-registered target for Russian artillery behind the nuke plant, and as the morning sky was crystal clear, drone activity was expected.  

Fighting position overlooking the Dnipro river, with Zaphorizia nuclear power plant in background

According to our hosts, enemy artillery was positioned behind the power facility, which made counter-battery fire a non-starter, so they had just to sit there and take whatever was thrown at them, but when a Russian patrol went past in a hovercraft, they got to vent some pent-up frustration and ripped into it with a Browning M2. 

About an hour after we left, a message popped up on Olha’s phone with a couple of new photos. The complex we’d just visited had been hit with artillery, and fresh impact craters dotted the landscape.

Next stop was Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second city. It had been torn up, with the Russians first advancing to the city’s northern suburbs, then retreating in last May. 

Kh-22 ‘carrier killer' anti ship missiles use inertial guidance to get to their target area, then switch to active radar to locate something large and rectangular. Like an apartment block.

A Ukrainian counter-offensive in September resulted in Russian forces being pushed back over the border, but in the intervening time, they rained artillery and missiles down on the town, resulting in the destruction or damage of over 4000 buildings. 

RELEASE THE KRAKEN

We met up with a deputy commander from the Kraken Regiment, another of the volunteer militias which sprang up as a result of the invasion and which currently answers to the Intelligence Directorate rather than the MOD. 

Formed by ex-members of both Azov and Right Sector, Kraken hasn’t had time to accumulate the PR baggage of the other two units, but given its successes in the field, we have no doubt they’ll be tagged by the Russians as Neo-nazis sooner, rather than later.  

When we arrived to the apartment of four of the regiment’s junior members, we found their accommodation cluttered with the usual collection of uniforms and gear you’d expect to see in a barracks, but tucked away in one corner was a clue as to why they’d seen recent successes on the battlefield. 

Hooked up to the TV was a video console playing not COD, but a first-person view drone simulator. While one of the guys had been practicing hitting a vehicle with the FPV drone, his buddy was running a 3D printer, cranking out parts for drone-dropped munitions. One version we handled was a blast/frag freefall bomblet, while the other featured a copper explosively formed projectile (EFP), which reportedly would penetrate 80mm of armor. 

Modern problems require modern solutions.

Both were made from commonly-available plumbing supplies, held together with 3D-printed connectors and dropped from consumer-grade Mavic 3 drones.

According to their 2 i/c, the unit had self-funded a transition away from Soviet-era small arms, and while there, we saw SCAR 16 and M4A1 carbines, with a smattering of FN2000s. 

Croatian RGB6 40mm grenade launchers were favored as support weapons, but it was in the arena of drone warfare where they saw the greatest advances. While they had no active anti-UAS systems, they were able to counter Russian electronic warfare (EW)  by means of signal boosters developed in-house by one of their soldiers who, prior to last year, was a Ph.D. student working on an engineering doctorate. 

We learned that the Kraken Regiment, having grown from a handful of dudes doing hood rat shit with their friends to two professional battalions, was undergoing training in various western countries in anticipation of the coming Spring counter-offensive. 

Interviewing several of the soldiers left behind, it was notable how many were lawyers, small business owners, or professionals who would otherwise never have imagined themselves serving as grunts in an artillery war. But here they were. 

WAR NEVER CHANGES

Having dropped off our last consignment of aid in Kharkiv, we headed out on the long drive back to the Polish border, just before missiles slammed into the city, cutting off power and connectivity for its residents. While on the road, we received word that the guy who had given us his paintings for delivery to his family had been killed by shrapnel in Bhakmut. 

Later, we found out ‘Nord’ had been wounded. Tearfully, Olha relayed the news, ‘It’s like the Russians send their worst people to die in this war while we send our best.’

There’s a sense of war-weariness among the civilian population we spoke to. A year of seeing friends and family die in a conflict they didn’t want has sapped some of the vitality from their lives, and we now see sadness in the eyes of some of the people we spoke to just seven months ago, the same people who were confident of a rapid return to normal. 

This collection of platoon-level first aid kits was assembled by volunteers in a residential basement was due to ship out to units in the east 

But there’s also a grim determination not to live under Russian occupation. We met young women who congregated after work to make camo nets and build first aid kits, while others put on events to raise funds for volunteer units. Each was doing whatever they could to assist those fighting and dying to preserve their country. 

While our politicians harangue each other over what weapons systems to send, or whether aid should be sent at all, ordinary people on the ground aren’t waiting for Leopards, Abrams or fabled pallets of cash.

We like to think that most of our fellow readers in the US would respond the same way. There's a very real gratitude and appreciation for everything the US has done in the past year, but in the Ukrainian volunteer organizations we encountered, the spirit of, ‘help us, or GTFO of the way’ is remarkably strong. 

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